Istanbul was on my bucket list forever and when I moved to Dubai 3 years ago I thought it would be the first place I would visit in the region. Yet, because of the relative instability in the country, it didn’t feel safe at the time. Fast forward to 2018, we finally decided to spend 3 days in Istanbul in October and although it was quite short, I was so excited! In my opinion, 3 days is enough to go through the main city sights but there is so much more to see and experience in Istanbul that 1 week would be just as good! You will find below a 3 days itinerary, with most of Istanbul must-see for a first-time visit. And if you want further inspiration, check out this list of novels about Turkey, that are guaranteed to satisfy your wanderlust!
ISTANBUL ITINERARY – DAY 1
Why not start your exploration of Istanbul by visiting the most iconic, and impressive place in all of Istanbul: Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine cathedral during the 1st century A.D, before being turned into a Mosque by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. More recently, in 1935, the Turkish government turned Hagia Sophia into a Museum. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and one of the wonders of the world’s architecture history.
In my opinion, it is the most beautiful place in Istanbul and although my expectations were high, it didn’t disappoint. Once I stepped into Hagia Sophia and looked up its 75 m high dome, I really understood the mind-blowing proportions of the place.
Dedicate at least 1 hour to explore the entire place, including the upper gallery and take a closer look at some of the original Catholic mosaics that were covered by the Ottoman Empire, but uncovered and restored during the 20th-century renovation of Hagia Sophia.
Opening Hours :
1 Apr to 31 Sept: 9 am to 7 pm
1 Oct to 31 Mar: 9 am to 5 pm
Closed on Monday
Entrance Fees : 100 TL (15 USD)
Tips: There is a constant queue to get into Hagia Sophia, so I recommend to come well before the opening, to be one of the first in, and enjoy a somewhat quiet visit. Hagia Sophia is no longer a place of worship, therefore there is no specific dress code to get in. Hagia Sophia is also included in the Istanbul Museum Pass, so you can skip the ticket queue.
Once you are done dreaming in Haghia Sophia, head over to the nearby Basilica Cistern.
Built in 532, the Basilica Cistern is impressive by its proportions (the size of a cathedral) and architecture (a perfect line up of 336 columns, all built underground).
At the time I visited, the Basilica Cistern was empty of its water, which took away a bit of the drama. Still, it is interesting to visit, if only to see the Medusa column. All the way at the end of the cistern, 2 columns are supported by a high block with an engraved Medusa head. One is looking sideways, and the other one is upside down, which gives it quite a mystical feel. Kinda spooky too.
Opening Hours: Everyday from 9 am to 5.30 pm
Tips: It gets cold and humid inside, so bring something warm!
Continue on to visit the famous Blue Mosque. End of 2018, the Blue Mosque was under massive renovation both inside and outside, and although we can still see part of the ceiling and amazing mosaics, it is quite underwhelming.
Opening hours: The mosque is open 24/7 and the entry is free.
Tips: As with any mosque you need to cover your arms and legs, and women need to cover their hair. If you are not dressed suitably the helpful staff of the mosque can loan you some clothes for free.
Once you are done visiting the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar is a just a short walk away. It is definitely one of the nicest bazaar I have visited. The architecture is gorgeous, the sellers are not too pushy and there are lots of tea shops to take a break, relax and watch the daily bazaar activity. Whether you are here to buy spices, sweets, soap, carpet, clothes or counterfeit goods (a ton of these, unfortunately) you will definitely find something to your taste.
Opening Hours: Open every days but Sunday and public holidays, from 9 am to 7 pm.
Exit the bazaar on its north side and walk over to the Suleymaniye Mosque, the greatest of Istanbul Imperial Mosque. In perfect condition and with a splendid interior, I finally got the “whaoo effect” that was missing from the Bleu Mosque under renovation.
From the nearby Eminönü station, board a 2h Bosphorus cruise. Take the 4.30 pm boat and you will witness Istanbul’s amazing sunset on your way back.
Tips: The tour costs 20 TL (USD 4) and you can buy tea on board for 2 TL (USD 0.4). It is hard to hear the comments on the boats, so read up ahead of time or take a guidebook to know more about the itinerary and the places you will see.
ISTANBUL ITINERARY – DAY 2
Wake up early to beat the crowd in one of Istanbul’s most touristic places, the Topkapi Palace. Built-in the 15th century it used to be the residence and administration center of the Ottoman Sultans. It was turned into a museum in 1923 and was added to the Unesco World Heritage sites in 1985. On display in the museums are articles of clothing, manuscripts, religious artifacts, weapons etc … One of the most popular areas of the Palace Eminönü is the Harem, so apparently, it is good to visit it first. Before you leave, don’t miss the beautiful view over the Golden Horn, at the end of the Palace gardens.
Once you get a museum overdose, walk or take a tram to Eminönü and pay a quick visit to the Spice Bazaar (also called Egyptian Bazaar). With less than 100 shops, it is easier to manage than the Grand Bazaar and is a good option to buy local spices, dry fruits, sweets, soaps, and other souvenirs.
CUKURCUMA & CIHANGIR
In the afternoon, explore the cute neighbourhoods of Cukurcuma & Cihangir. There are a lot of antique stores, cafes and restaurants around, and it is perfect to relax away from the busy touristic areas.
From here, head over to Taksim Square and walk down Istiklal Cadessi, a bustling commercial street, all the way to the Galata Tower. The tower is well known for being one of the tallest edifices on this side of the Bosphorus and for offering a spectacular 360 degrees view over the city from its upper balcony. We decided not to go up thought, as the line to get in was ridiculously long, and the admission cost was a bit much for Istanbul (25 TL / 5 USD).
ISTANBUL ITINERARY – DAY 3
Head early to visit the Dolmabahce Palace, a completely crazy and over the top palace, once the residence of the ruling family. With nearly 300 rooms, 46 halls and 6 Hammans, it is the largest palace in the country. The interior decoration is a unique blend of classic, baroque and ottoman influence, and clearly not suited for the lover of a “less is more” style. If you are fascinated by these kinds of places, you can dedicate half a day to visiting the Palace and the surrounding gardens … If not, a couple of hours will be enough to make you dizzy!
Opening hours: 9 am to 4 pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday
Entrance Fee : Full ticket (Palace + Harem) : 40 TL (7.5 USD)
Tips: There is a maximum capacity of 3,000 pax/day, so go early to be sure to enter. The queue in the middle of the day is outrageously long, so get there as early as possible.
To get there, take the tram T1 to Kabatas station, and then walk a few minutes north to the palace.
3km north along the Bosphorus Strait is the Ortokay neighborhood and its famous mosque. It is a very popular spot to hang out especially during the weekend, with plenty of restaurants, coffee shop and street foods and beautiful views of the Bosphorus.
WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL?
There are plenty of amazing options close to Istiklal Caddesi & Beyogly and you might be tempted to stay in that vibrant and modern side of the city, with all the bars, clubs and restaurants.
But for me it was more important to stay close to the key touristic attractions that are Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, to be able to reach there early morning. We stayed at Ibrahim Pasha, a boutique hotel perfectly located a few minutes’ walk from Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
The hotel is warm and cozy, with friendly staff welcoming you and giving you detailed recommendations on what to see, where to eat and how to move around. Breakfast was simple, fresh, locally made and of course delicious! The hotel also has a rooftop which is probably one of the best possible views of the Blue Mosque. Of course, the proximity to the mosque also means you will be awakened by the call to prayer every day around 5 am. Sorry, you can’t have it all! One thing though, if you are interested to book a room in Ibrahim Pasha, double-check the size of the room. Although it was super cozy, our bedroom was much smaller than we expected.
Still, for around USD 100 / night I think Ibrahim Pasha is a good option.
However, if you want to splurge in style, you should check out the amazing Soho House Istanbul. One day for sure I will stay there!
WHERE TO EAT IN ISTANBUL
Istanbul is a food feast and planning food stops in your itinerary is almost as important as planning the visits!
During our 3 days in Istanbul, we tried local eateries, touristic spots, and high-end restaurants and every single time the food was delicious! Below are a few restaurants I recommend :
Local vibe @ Aslan: The real local experience! The food is pre-prepared and the only thing to do is choose among all the mouth-watering options on display. Everything was delicious and reasonably priced. A true local eatery.
Lunch & Shisha @Mahmiye : Close to the Hagia Sophia, we ate twice in this restaurant. Although a touristic spot, the food is delicious, the staff is very friendly and we had the best shisha of our stay !
Feel fancy @ Mikla : For a fancy dinner, or a drink with 360 view over Istanbul, don’t miss Mikla. White tablecloth and classy waiters are waiting for you in this super chic restaurant located on the top floor of the Marmara Pera hotel. They serve a 3-course menu for 325 TL (USD 60) and a 7-course menu for 450 TL (USD 85). Of course, it is quite expensive for Istanbul, but the food, the service, and the incredible view make it all worth it.
Reservation is highly recommended. You can also just go for a drink on the rooftop.
Healthy Lunch @ Cuma Cafe: If you spend some time in the Cukurcuma neighborhood, stop by this cute cafe for breakfast or lunch. Nothing fancy here, but a nice terrace and good Turkish food.
I really hope you liked this recommended itinerary for 3 days in Istanbul. If you are planning a trip to Istanbul and have some question about your itinerary, don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments below, or through Instagram, I am always happy to help.